A faculty-approved change to the grading system passed amid a wave of student controversy three years ago still has some students and faculty members debating its impact on Bowdoin's academic environment.
And it all has to do with those little pluses and minuses.
In April 2002, the College faculty voted 45 to 29 to add "+" and "-" to the grading system, essentially doubling the selection of marks professors could use to evaluate student achievement from the previously-used five-point scale that included only A, B, C, D, and F.
"The change did what it was intended to do," said Physics Professor Steven Naculich, who, as chair of the Recording Committee, initially presented the measure to the faculty in 2002. "It allowed a little more flexibility in grading."
The grading scale now includes 10 possible marks, A, A-, B+, B, B-, C+, C, C-, D, and F.
The proposed change was met with strong opposition from the student body in 2002. Students organized forums and protests and even conducted a campus-wide opinion poll before the Faculty vote in which 69 percent of respondents expressed their objection. Among their concerns were worries that the change would increase stress and tarnish Bowdoin's relatively uncompetitive academic environment.
"I didn't like the change. I feel that a plus/minus system increased the competitiveness and general stress of the student body unnecessarily," said senior Chris McCabe, who would like to see the old system come back. "Several students that I've talked to about it...chose Bowdoin in part because of the lack of a plus/minus system."
One of those students is Jackson Wilkinson '05. Wilkinson not only disapproved of the new grading system, which took effect in his sophomore year, but even considered transferring schools in no small part because of it.
"I rarely heard people speak of grades in any specific way" before the change took effect, Wilkinson said. "Now...the check, instead of the check-plus, you got on that one homework assignment comes into play, and that one question you got wrong on the midterm becomes a topic of debate. I've seen it, and it just all seems so pathetic to me, and not something I think fits into higher education."
Claire Falck, a senior who recalls the controversy in her first year, does not see a problem in the new system.
"I think that there's definitely a grade awareness at work at Bowdoin, but I don't think that there's anything necessarily wrong with that. If you're going to have a system that involves grades at all, you might as well have [one that is] as specific and accurate as possible," she said.
"I doubt that adding pluses and minuses increased grade awareness in any significant way," Falck said.
Associate Professor of Philosophy Scott Sehon, who initially supported the measure but changed his mind in response to student opposition, said he has not seen much of an impact on academic culture since the changes went into effect for the 2002-2003 academic year.
"I've got more decisions to make," said Sehon, who said he makes use of the entire new grading range. "Now a B is between a B+ and a B-, and it does not mean the monstrosity it used to mean."
Associate Professor of Theater and Dance Davis Robinson, who said he "hates grades," believes Bowdoin is "horribly grade conscious." He strongly opposed the recent adoption of a credit/D/fail system, but still appreciates the flexibility the new system has given him. "If you're going to have grades, you want nuance," he said.
There was some student concern in 2002 was that this added nuance would come at a price?lower overall GPAs.
Christine Cote, director of institutional research for the Office of Student Records, said she has not seen any evidence of this. "If you look at the average GPAs in the last several semesters, you see many of the same numbers. I think it is safe to say that the introduction of plus-minus grades has not changed the averages at all," Cote said.
Senior Scott Raker said that despite getting pluses and minuses where he would not have before, he has not noticed any significant impact on his GPA. "It all evens out no matter what," he said.
But the changes have affected some seniors' GPAs, particularly those who, like McCabe, fell on the low end of the solid letter grade scales their first years.
"The system change hurt me personally," McCabe said. "I tended to often receive A- [grade ranges] that would be bumped up to A's. A- is close enough in my book," he said.
Assistant Professor of Mathematics Matthew Killough, who opposed the measure in large part because of the student outcry, admitted that the new system has affected the way he grades. "In my own classes it is much harder to get a straight A. It's easier to get an A-. I reserve the A's for the most exemplary work," he said.
Aside from brief verbal descriptions in the course catalogue describing the significance of each grade, there is no college-wide grading standard or mandate to control how individual professors evaluate students. "It is left up to the instructor," Cote said, adding that the addition of pluses and minuses did not dictate that professors follow suit. "The changes simply said that professors could attach a plus or minus [to a grade]," she said.
Professor of Sociology Nancy Riley said that while she now uses pluses and minuses "a lot," the new system "has not changed the way I grade or how I think about grading in any way that I can see."
Another concern raised by both students and faculty in 2002?that the new system might accelerate Bowdoin's steady rate of grade inflation?have turned out to be unfounded.
Religion Department Chair Professor John Holt, who brought forth a similar grade change proposal that was voted down by four votes by the Faculty some years before pluses and minuses were approved in 2002, said he was "delighted" to see it finally happen. "I think it was inevitable that we would move to this," he said.
Yet some lament the change as a negative thing for Bowdoin.
"Bowdoin has always been known as a school that challenges the idea that statistics are a complete picture of a student," Wilkinson said. "Bowdoin's grading changes have put the College at opposition to its mission, and it is a weaker College because of it."